DeKalb Towns Have Shelter From the Storm; Dade, Not So Much

Dade County has no tornado shelters, but across the border in DeKalb County, Ala., which was hit even worse in 2011, eight little communities built themselves safe places to go in a storm. This is Henegar's.

With Dade County under a tornado watch until 10 p.m. tonight, now seems a good time to discuss tornado shelters.

Well, maybe now is not such a good time. Maybe a better time might have been five or six years ago. But now is what we've got, so let's plunge on in.

Dade County does not have tornado shelters. "We've talked about it and it's on the radar," said Dade County Clerk Don Townsend. But he was not hopeful anything would happen in that regard any time soon.

In fact, said Townsend, with the proposed Trump budget cuts, a lot of the federal grants that rural counties depend on for emergency services projects, particularly "pre-disaster mitigation grants"--the ones that pay for things like tornado shelters--appear to be on the chopping block. That means people in favor of shrinking the federal government will be pleased, he said, but people who want tornado shelters, less so. "The national debt will be smaller but some of the money that used to trickle down to the counties won't anymore," said Townsend.

Townsend said the county did not have designated tornado-safe areas though he had heard colloquially that some of the churches in Trenton offered shelter in their basements.

Not his church, Trenton United Methodist Minister Reece Fauscett said. "We're built on a pad," he said. "We don't have a basement."

Trenton UMC was the hub of disaster relief in Dade following the 2011 tornadoes, Fauscett pointed out, and in fact tries to be a community center for aid after any emergency. But as far as during the emergency, the Methodist church has no storm-safe place to shelter people and neither does any other local church he could think of. "I don't know of any underground place in this town," he said.

Maybe, he added, the basement of the Dade Administrative Building. But a Dade Emergency Services employee the Planet queried on the subject said no, the only shelter Dade County can provide is the Sheriff's Department. The department is open 24 hours, she said, and anyone wishing shelter is allowed to sit in the lobby.

Dade's neighbor across the Alabama border, DeKalb County, does have tornado shelters. After the sweeping devastation of the tornadoes of April 27, 2011, eight DeKalb towns built storm shelters they financed through FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) grants such as the ones discussed by Townsend above.

The FEMA grants, brokered by the county for participating municipalities, were 75/25 matching deals, with Uncle Sam springing for the big part and the individual towns picking up the rest. It wasn't a hard sale, said Chuck Ables, mayor of Geraldine, one of the towns that built a shelter.

"We had 37 fatalities here in our county in 2011," he said. "That impacted a lot of people."

Geraldine itself was spared in 2011, but had been hit by a tornado a year to the day earlier, on April 27, 2010. Furthermore, Rainsville, only 15 miles away, was more or less razed by the later storm and the aftershocks of that impacted Geraldine as well.

Geraldine's tornado shelter, which like the others in DeKalb built contemporaneously was designed to seat 96, cost $80,000. With the 75/25 split, Geraldine's share was $20,000. That included everything, said Mayor Ables.

"They came and did the groundwork. Then they brought it in a truck and set it down and bolted it down," said the mayor. "All we had to have was a place to put it and come up with some money."

Marla Fairley, city clerk of Henegar, Ala., which also built a shelter after the 2011 tornadoes, intimated her town's was pricier. "You wouldn't believe the cost on these things," she said. But she was unsure of the total, not having been on board during the initial stages of construction.

The Planet checked with Jay Culpepper at Survive-A-Storm Shelters, the company that installed Geraldine's shelter. He said the base price for a 96-person shelter is around $45,000.

Culpepper said other additions, frills and options were available which could add to the cost. Mayor Ables said Geraldine's shelter is wired for electricity from the main grid and also has a generator in case the power goes out. The town made the decision not to include bathrooms, though, not so much as a financial decision but so as not to waste space. "You're usually not in there for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time," he said.

Do people in DeKalb use the shelters? The people in Geraldine do, said Mayor Ables. "We completed in it February of 2012 and I'd say we've probably opened it 15 times since then," he said.

The policy, he said, is to open the shelter not just during tornado watches but during thunderstorm alerts as well. "We open it sometimes even in anticipation," he said. If, for example, bad weather is predicted for late night, the decision might be made to go ahead and open the shelter just in case.

Ables said if the predicted weather emergency is nothing worse than a thunderstorm, only six to 15 may show up at the shelter. "But if it's tornado warning, we have had 150 people in it."

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